Chunky in Heat Yearbook: Emily Geller

EiO’s upcoming opera Chunky in Heat follows the emotional life of a teenage protagonist, Cheryl (aka Chunky), as she navigates the perils of her changing world.  We asked some of the artists involved in the premiere to share how their own experiences in high school informed their work on the opera.

Emily Geller is singing the role of Mother in Chunky in Heat.

I’ve always had a dramatic flare. As a kid (and adult), I enjoyed portraying different characters. Dress up and imaginary play were my favorite activities. Sylvia (Mother) is interesting, like all of A.M. Homes’s characters. She’s fantastically ridiculous. My challenge is to find her humility so I don’t cross over into a caricature. She uses her image, in the form of plastic surgery, to keep control over her life after her son’s death. As a new mother myself, I think this is the key to finding her truth.

Chunky in Heat Yearbook: Sarah Daniels

EiO’s upcoming opera Chunky in Heat follows the emotional life of a teenage protagonist, Cheryl (aka Chunky), as she navigates the perils of her changing world.  We asked some of the artists involved in the premiere to share how their own experiences in high school informed their work on the opera.

Sarah Daniels sings the role of Chunky in the upcoming production of Chunky in Heat.

Upon first reading the libretto I thought “So, this is about me as a teenager.” I relate to Chunky at an embarrassingly high level. Somehow simultaneously self-centered and self-conscious. Overly confident in some ways, and wildly under-confident in most other ways. Seeing the world entirely through the lens of how it relates to me. First of all, of course I relate to Chunky’s body image issues. I can’t imagine a world in which teenage girls don’t care about how they look and obsessively compare themselves to celebrities and their peers. I used to make makeshift corsets out of bandanas and wear them under my t-shirts. Cosmopolitan magazine was a strange, forbidden bible of female perfection. It’s a messed up world, that of a teenage girl. BUT more than anything as a teenager, I wanted to get out, and it wasn’t so much a “plan” in my head as it was the inevitable trajectory for me. I had set all my clocks and watches to New York time years before I graduated and left the southwest. I dressed up every single day of high school as if to prepare myself for the high pressure to be fashionable in New York City. I totally isolated myself in this way, and I didn’t much care because I was leaving it all behind in a matter of years anyway. I was living a life in preparation for the future. Even if I didn’t get into my dream NYC conservatory, the plan was to go to New York regardless–start taking voice lessons and start auditioning for theatre. The plan was to escape to something better, bigger, brighter, at any cost. I realize now what a fantasy world I lived in, but I can’t complain–I’m in New York City, and I still call it home almost ten years later, forever chasing the dream (albeit with far much less glamour than I had envisioned as a 15-year-old). tl;dr Playing Chunky hits close to home.

Chunky in Heat Yearbook: Matthew Welch

EiO’s upcoming opera Chunky in Heat follows the emotional life of a teenage protagonist, Cheryl (aka Chunky), as she navigates the perils of her changing world.  We asked some of the artists involved in the premiere to share how their own experiences in high school informed their work on the opera.

Matthew Welch is one of the six composers who contributed music to Chunky in Heat.

One aspect of the story that I was trying to capture in the music is the idea of body dysmorphia and also how that can relate to eating disorders. My take on the shapeshifter character, albeit inspiring a magical realist scenario, is that of personal projection on Chunky’s part. Here the shapeshifter externalizes and epitomizes the issues of diet and personal malleability; that one’s focus on their body image and the compulsion to change it are mixed up in an anxious stew, which for teenagers, is magnified by so many changes in body and personal identity.

Personally, I have struggled with binge eating and fluctuating weight, and the delusional idea that something “wrong” with one’s body can be “fixed.” I also was a bit of a loner in my teen years, but a keen observer of the concerns of more socialized and popular kids. No doubt my teenage socially awkward moments number in the millions, a general experience I tried to encapsulate here.

The music for my scenes uses sliding strings and surprise harmony as a metaphor for the changing of body shape, size and visage. Also, it builds off of a stewy mix of musical idioms that comes to represent the sound of LA; grinding skate-punk, bubbly surf-rock and Hollywood-esque soundscapes.

Chunky in Heat Yearbook: Erin Rogers

EiO’s upcoming opera Chunky in Heat follows the emotional life of a teenage protagonist, Cheryl (aka Chunky), as she navigates the perils of her changing world.  We asked some of the artists involved in the premiere to share how their own experiences in high school informed their work on the opera.

Erin Rogers is one of the six composers who contributed music to Chunky in Heat.

My braces felt like they would never come off. At age 14, the prospect of two years seemed like a lifetime. Right as I wanted my social life to kick into high-gear – at school dances, sports, and extra-curricular activities – my metal smile was a disaster. In addition, I was spending my allowance on acne cleansers and scouring my Dad’s closet for oversize sweatshirts to disguise my changing body. No one was crushing on me. I was crushing on everyone. What I wanted was an exciting nightlife, what I got was homework and music practice. Throughout the compositional process for Chunky in Heat, I tried to channel Cheryl’s feelings for Walter. Her lustful, colorific soliloquies in Scene 2, Part 1 while alone, at her family home, were an important mental escape for her. I know that place.


INTERVIEW: Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew

Every Single Visual Image is a Code for Something

Designer, Puppeteer, Director Jeanette Yew is one of the main creative forces behind Experiments in Opera’s premiere production of And Here We Are.  Jeanette has been collaborating with composer Matthew Welch and librettist Daniel Neer for the past year on bringing this chilling story to life through a hybrid form of shadow puppetry.  EiO Artistic Director Jason Cady talked with Jeanette recently about the history of shadow puppetry and why she can understand that God has been pictured as an old man in paintings throughout history.

JASON CADY: First, could you tell us about yourself and what you do in the theatre?

JEANETTE OI-SUK YEW: I am the lighting and projection designer for live performances, and art installation. I also direct, and design, and create contemporary puppetry performances. And I teach design, actually starting this fall, with NYU.

CADY: When did you become interested in puppetry?

YEW: I started when I was at the University of Washington as an undergrad, because there was somebody that teaches puppetry there. I was just fascinated by this idea of marrying craft, skills, object, and performance together. And then I went to CalArts and studied with Janie Geiser, who is an experimental filmmaker and puppeteer.

CADY: Could you tell us what And Here We Are is about and your roles in it?

YEW: And Here We Are is a surreal exploration of a person’s coping mechanism while being interned during World War II in an internment camp in the Philippines. My role in this project is to design and direct it as a shadow puppet opera. The psychedelic aspect of shadow puppetry is a great vehicle to explore this intense psychological landscape that Edgar, the main character, is experiencing. The opera is conceived to have shadow puppetry as the main visual storytelling, so I’m directing that. And there is going to be a band on stage along with the singers.

CADY: Do the singers also act?

YEW: There’s a little interaction in the beginning to set up the convention. The puppets, and puppeteer are an extension of the singers who embody the character through their voices. So there’s a staging aspect in the beginning so the audience understands this puppetry tradition of splitting up the vocal and the visual.

CADY: Do the puppets allow the singers to portray multiple characters?

YEW: Definitely. Although the design centers more on an abstract exploration in that it is not a one-to-one relationship. The wonderful thing is that puppetry allows you to go psychologically to different terrains for understanding storytelling, compared to when the singer portrays the character physically as a human being, we assume that the presence of the person is the same as the character.

But with puppetry we’re separating all these different elements so the voice is associated with the singer, while the physical form is portrayed visually. The physical portrayal is not necessarily a straight portrayal. At times it’s almost like an essence of a human being or a thought, rather than an exact representation.

CADY: Plus, it’s an opera instead of a play, so the voices themselves are one level removed, as far as abstraction.

YEW: Yes, definitely. I love working in opera precisely because the voice itself is, as you said, one level removed. So now, in this case, we dive even deeper into further abstract experiences.

CADY: For anyone not familiar with shadow puppetry, could you just explain what it is?

YEW: Shadow puppetry relies on putting a light source and a surface, and in between it is where the form of the shadow, the puppet exists, which then casts a shadow onto the surface.

CADY: And could you tell us a little about its history?

YEW: In the U.S. puppetry does not really have a long history. But shadow puppetry on the worldwide stage has a long tradition, particularly in East Asia. The Greeks, for example, have a long tradition. So does Turkey.

CADY: When I think of Greek theater, I just think of Sophocles and Aristophanes and Euripides, I didn’t know they had shadow puppets.

YEW: The Greeks and Turks actually have a long tradition, they both have this character—in the Turkish version, it’s called Karagöz. And this particular character is very political, and goes around the villages telling stories and making fun of current affairs and the monarch and society. For example—Punch and Judy, which is an Italian puppet—Punch is a despicable character. He hits his wife. He threw his baby out the window. He killed a policeman. He killed a crocodile, and eventually the devil. It’s a long and widely loved form of political theatre, of challenging and saying to the world, “I don’t care. This is what I do. This is who I am.”

CADY: So the puppets can do things that ordinary people can’t?

YEW: For many cultures, human beings are not allowed to portray divine beings. So part of the function of puppetry is that it can embody divine beings and pass on the stories and perform them in public.

CADY: It’s taboo for humans to represent deities?

YEW: It’s not that there’s something wrong with humans portraying deities, but that the human is not the right vehicle to channel these ideas.

CADY: So it’s just that humans aren’t really qualified?

YEW: Yeah, sort of like how we discussed earlier, in opera, the voices become something else. The sheer fact of singing—even though you’re delivering the same text—the singing itself elevates it into something more abstract.

CADY: I always thought it was funny how God is depicted as an old man in Christian iconography. As great as the Sistine Chapel is, it’s bizarre to think God would exist in human form.

YEW: You have to think in context of when the culture was founded. In Christianity’s origin, human beings didn’t live that long, because the world was harsh, and there were no antibiotics. So this idea of the Christian God, being an older person shows a level of power because human beings couldn’t live that long.

CADY: That’s a great defense of Michelangelo.

YEW: Well, I believe every single visual image is a code for something.

CADY: You convinced me.

YEW: [laugh] That’s great! I hope the Pope will invite me to dinner one day.

CADY: And what is your take on shadow puppetry in And Here We Are?

YEW: We were inspired by Indonesian puppet design. Traditionally they use leather and bones to create their puppets, and then there will be a giant group of gamelan players.

We’re contemporizing it by using video projections, and live feed camera, to create shadow puppet effects, in addition to a more traditional idea of using a light source and screen.

CADY: That sounds incredible. It might not even need any music!

YEW: [laughs] I don’t think so! I think the music is what makes it good.

CADY: What other projects do you have coming up?

YEW: I’m developing a piece that explores how we want our communities to look in the future, How would we actually like to live as human beings, assuming we all survive.

CADY: I am often struck by the realization that the world we live in is one we have made and chosen. I don’t mean nature, of course, but society. There are so many problems in the world, and humans just collectively decided to tolerate them. We decided this is the best of all possible worlds, instead of some utopia.

YEW: Yeah, and there’s a lot of debate. Some people believe the only way to achieve a better community is to go small. Some people believe that it is about density. And part of it actually originated with the Bible, the book of Genesis, which is all about how the world was created, and all these different stories of people creating community for themselves, or in some cases God dictating how they would create communities. So, I just want to ask how we really want to live.

CADY: Do you have an answer? Or are you just interested in examining the idea of this question?

YEW: I am interested in the idea of the question. I grew up in Hong Kong, so I think there are huge advantages to high density. But at the same time, I understand people who prefer to live in the woods with 100 acres around them. I don’t think there’s an easy answer, but we should start asking these questions. Just because of how something has been doesn’t mean it is the best way to do something. In every single journey someone, at some point, asks a question, and that leads to the evolution of ideas.

CADY: This reminds me of Walden Two, which was an inspiration for the commune movement. It’s been years since I read it, but I remember thinking it was a surprisingly interesting and compelling novel, considering it was written by B. F. Skinner.

YEW: Yeah, it is. There’s a community in New Mexico where the center of their community is actually a performing space, which is a very Greek idea: performance as a public debate, as a way to converse.
And Henry Ford built one of his factories in the rainforest as an ideal way of living. He was preoccupied with how to create a utopia for his workers to live in and work. So many different people over time have many different ideas of how to organize society. And honestly, I believe that religion started out as a way to organize society.

CADY: Henry Ford was a terrible person in a lot of ways, but also pretty interesting as a historical figure, I’ve been to his Greenfield Village before. Do you know Greenfield Village?

YEW: I’ve heard of it. So you’ve been to it? Wow.

CADY: I’m from Flint, Michigan so I went there as a child, and also this last Christmas. Ford had the Wright Brothers house transported there, and some other homes that were just old. And you can ride in a Model T. But, speaking of Ford, what about communism? Is that one of the utopian ideas for your piece?

YEW: Yeah, definitely. Although I think communism is often misunderstood, because you have to go through capitalism before you get there, and none of the countries have actually gone through that process. But the idea that you can create a system where it promotes a level of economic equality is something I think every country, as an organism, is striving to get to. I think the idea of communism is trying to be a kind and empathetic system, without addressing greed or other kinds of human desire. But fundamentally it’s really trying to think, what does fairness look like? What does equality look like?

CADY: And what’s next for And Here We Are?

YEW: We’re hoping to tour, so if anybody is curious of bringing And Here We Are to their city, let us know.

INTERVIEW: Daniel Neer

 When We Dream We are Figuring Out
the Riddles of the Day

Librettist and Singer Daniel Neer approached his work on the forthcoming opera And Here We Are with a rigorous inventiveness.  A combination of history, memoir and fiction, the opera explores the psychology of war, imprisonment and identity, all the while giving us a thrilling story about a man’s fight for survival.  Daniel talked with EiO Artistic Director Jason Cady about what made this project different and exciting for him.

JASON CADY: Can you first tell us what And Here We Are is about?

DANIEL NEER: The story is about Edgar Kneedler* and his family, who were in Manila in the Philippines running a series of hotels. America became involved in the war, and the Japanese took over the Philippines. That was MacArthur’s famous “I’ll be back,” where he left the Philippines. And every westerner was incarcerated.

Edgar remained behind as manager of the hotel, which was housing Japanese soldiers. So at the beginning of the opera, Edgar arrives at the camp as one of the last westerners.

It was tricky writing a plot for something historical because everyone knows the ending. But we get to see through Edgar’s eyes a situation that was supposed to be temporary, which ended up being several years, and much more serious. These were people who were running businesses. They were not soldiers; they were civilians, and completely not prepared for what was happening to them in this camp. They were allowed to take one suitcase, which was, of course, confiscated. The clothes they wore on their back they wore the entire time in the camp.

One story follows Edgar’s experience of witnessing what’s happening around him in the years in this camp. But the other story is a more personal story of Edgar’s, which is that we know from his diaries that he was searching. He had a passion for music and opera, and some voice training. So in the second storyline, we see this awakening of Edgar, as he is forced in this concentration camp to rectify to himself what is important and to get serious and realize that every day is precious and he should not just sit on a dream. He should act on it. By the end of the experience he is changed in that way.

CADY: You said writing historical fiction is hard since everyone knows the ending, but one of the things I love about this story is that I knew nothing about what happened in the Philippines despite World War II being such a significant historical event in the minds of most Americans.

NEER: And that’s what’s powerful about this story. Edgar’s diaries gave an interesting focus into this. In one of the early paragraphs of the memoir, he says, “I’m not going to write about the horrible things that happened in the camp, because there are plenty of people that will write about those things.”

Not only did I run out to find those books, but it also gave me an insight into Edgar’s psyche. That this is somebody who decided right away, “I’m making the best of the situation, and what I choose to write about and remember are the uncanny, weird, funny things.”

I found those books and they are full of atrocities, and Edgar is featured in most of them. And we’re talking about thousands of people, but he was somebody they all knew and remembered.

He was kind of a joker. He was trying to help people and he was a positive influence in the camp. And that helped shape his character and the whole libretto for the opera.

CADY: I imagine Matt Welch being in such a predicament and standing out in his own way.

NEER: And to be clear, some of the things that he found funny to tell in his memoirs were horrifying. I mean, not funny at all to me. There was a line in the libretto in which he says, “It’s interesting what one finds funny when you’re locked up in a camp.” Matt and I talked a lot about that. About not only the mental effect of being in a camp and having to adjust yourself to selective seeing as a form of survival, but also this notion that year by year that compass shifts and what you find funny is nothing like your previous life at all.

Peppered in with this is the fact that most of these people had beriberi, a disease caused by lack of protein. One of the symptoms of beriberi is hallucinations and paranoia. So Matt and I tried to take the things that were comic to him and blow them up and as time went on they become even more heightened and psychedelic as an imprint on Edgar’s mind.

CADY: Since you did so much research I wonder how much pure fiction is in the story?

NEER: I call it selective fiction. For instance, the villain in the story is the guard, Abiko, who was a real person. The stories in the libretto and the anecdotes for him are actually his, but also a few other guards thrown in.

Abiko was shot by Americans who entered the camp. So the biggest departure from reality was we gave Edgar a chance to approach Abiko’s ghost and say he’s not afraid, and he is ready for this next chapter in his life.

CADY: Could you tell us about some of the other characters?

NEER: At the time Edgar was in the camp, he had a wife with a toddler, who were sequestered in a different building. And he was given conjugal rights. She actually conceived and had a son while they were in the camp.

And it was evident from the memoir that women figure prominently in Edgar’s life. His wife, his mother, women from his past, like his first piano teacher. There’s an aria devoted to her. These are people who are clarion. They keep coming back to him as mentors in his mind.

In the throes of beriberi and hallucinating, we even brought a female character from his future to visit him, which was a voice teacher that he established himself with when he moved to New York City after the war. And that became another structural device of a mother earth type figure helping him solve these problems in his mind.

A lot of scenes happen during sleep, with the notion that when we dream, we are figuring out the riddles of the day. And so Matt and I were interested in these female characters who help him figure out this life’s riddle of what he’s supposed to do and become, and what meaning can life have after this hellish place he has been in.

CADY: Being a singer and librettist seems like such a natural fit, but I can’t think of any other singer/librettists, could you tell me more about that?

NEER: I’m a trained singer, and I’ve been a performer for about 30 years now, both on stage and in concert. I like to keep things shaken up so around the early 2000s, I started having ideas for libretti or song cycle texts, and writing them on little pieces of paper and thinking somebody would get a lot of use out of these. And then a friend of mine said, “Why don’t you try writing them?” And I started working on it.

My first piece was produced in 2006. It was called “Mercury Falling” for tenor, dancer, and chamber orchestra.

CADY: Who was the composer?

NEER: Chandler Carter. It was a different way of expressing myself that is now balanced 50/50 with my singing career. I felt when I started that the challenge would be that I had no experience writing but actually my experience was the variety of material I’ve performed. I write from the perspective of imagining it being performed as a stage piece so I have a built-in economy in the way I write.

CADY: What’s it like performing in operas that you collaborated on?

NEER: I approach the score as if it’s a brand-new piece. The words have totally changed. When they’re set to music, I recognize that I wrote it, but it’s very different.

I had a workshop with students at a university in Ohio and I compared it to being Michael Phelps or Greg Louganis. You’re either an Olympic swimmer or you’re an Olympic diver. They’re two different sports, but the pool is the same.

My collaboration with Matt and Experiments in Opera is so meaningful to me because it forced me to think about libretto writing in a different way, because of Matt’s approach to music and how he sees the musical message and structure of the piece.

CADY: How did the collaboration of And Here We Are come about?

NEER:  Matt approached me and this topic was completely new to me. So And Here We Are was a different trajectory for me as a writer, but I knew what the structure of the piece was, and that there was a protagonist. The memoirs of Edgar were a valuable piece of real estate.

The historical aspect is actually my favorite part. I love delving in and finding out as much as I can about something I previously had no knowledge of. And after I did a lot of research the piece was actually written quickly.

One of the road blocks for me from the beginning was how we would produce this piece. I was so impressed by an Experiments in Opera production of Sisyphus because of the economy of the cast. And I said to Matt, “I don’t know how to tell this story with just a few singers.”

Fast forward being in Paris on a singing gig and I went to the Guimet Museum, the Asian arts museum. A hall had shadow puppetry of all Asian backgrounds and origins. It immediately dawned on me that would be a great way to tell the story because you could go to town with these hallucinations and not have to worry about special effects. But also you could still have an economy of singers, three or four singers, but have them sing multiple roles. And you could bring in this Filipino-Javanese influence into the story.

So I emailed Matt and said, “I have a great idea. I can’t wait to talk to you about it.” I was scared it would scare him off, but he said he had been thinking a lot about trying to do something with puppetry. So once that was established and he made contact by reaching out to Jeanette Yew, we were off to the races.

The shadow puppetry gives us a storytelling device separate from the music, with expressing these fantastical words and scenes. Jeanette brings that to life for the audience using a completely different device than people standing on stage and singing.

CADY: That’s funny. I had assumed the puppet idea was Matt’s, because it’s the kind of thing he would do.

NEER: Well, we may argue over this a little bit. I don’t know. He might fight me for bragging rights.

CADY: [laugh] Well, fortunately this is your interview, not his. So what about the origin of the title for And Here We Are?

NEER: Edgar had an affinity for Matthew Arnold. His poem, “Dover Beach,” is typed out in the preface page of his memoirs. The poem is a look into nationalities of peoples who clash, and the futility of clashing, and if it’s perhaps human nature.

So when Matt brought this to me it resonated because I know the poem very well, because it was set by Samuel Barber. We deconstructed the poem and wove it throughout the piece. So there will be a bookend or a preface into a new scene where we hear a stanza of that poem. And the final stanza comes at the very end where Edgar is leaving with his family to start a new life.


*Great uncle of the composer, Matthew Welch

The Dynamic Stream of Culture

Composer and EiO Artistic Director Matthew Welch spent six weeks in the spring of 2017 in the Philippines having won a fellowship from the Asian Cultural Council. His goal was to engage with local musicians while at the same time researching his opera And Here We Are.  As he tells it in this post on his experiences, the trip was affirming and surprising, providing an opportunity for him to reflect as an artist on his family’s rich history in the Philippines (1905-1945) and the depth of remarkable Filipino cultural traditions.

Traveling to the Philippines was a tremendous opportunity for me.  Amid the whirlwind of travel and meetings, musical lessons and long hikes, I could not have fully understood how this trip would make an impact on me and my music.  Now that I am back in the US, I can see just how rare an experience it was to take such a pilgrimage back to my mythic homeland and walk the soil of my family’s unique Philippine history.

One of the first things I noticed was that, because I am working on my opera And Here We Are, I immediately became more aware of the soundscape of both my hereditary past and my work as a composer.   In my study of gangsa (Cordillera ritual flat gongs), I learned four different regions of the Cordillera: Benguet, Mountain Province, Ifugao and Kalinga.  I learned by rote the subtle differences between each of the traditions, magnifying the diversity of the regions and painting a much broader and subtler picture of the musical landscape of the country.

In addition, I explored the techniques of performance, melodic construction and improvisation for both the Kalinga nose flute tradition.  In these studies with Alex Tumapang, I immersed myself in the history of coupling poetic syllables with melodic constructions in the Ullalim epic from Kalinga.  This exploration of language and music has had direct impact on my techniques as a composer for voice and instruments.  In aural traditions, the references to past treatments of epic songs has a great deal to do with how history is constructed and communicated.

Along with my musical studies, I was able to get closer to my own family history. I stayed at my family’s old hotel that survived the war.  I also toured through the buildings of The University of Santo Thomas which, during the war, served as the internment camp where my family was held.  This experience was indescribably eerie.  Equally as surprising was my discovery of Kneedler Road in Baguio (my family was named Kneedler), on which the remains of my family’s log cabin still existed. My tour of Brent school in Baguio (where the Kneedler boys were enrolled) to recreate photos from the Kneedlers’ boyhoods was indescribably profound. And, I met the 102-year-old wife of my great-grandfather’s lawyer who was bequeathed our Baguio property.  In tribute to my family he named the street they lived on “Kneedler.” In this way, the trip was truly a pilgrimage.  These images and emotions have already made their way directly into And Here We Are, sometimes concretely and other times as ghostly shadows.

I returned with a head-hunter tattoo by 100 year-old batok artist Whang-Od, myriad assortment of Cordilleran gongs (gangsa), bamboo buzzers (balimbing), nose flutes (tongali), and heaps of theoretical and ethnomusicological writings by Filipino composer-researchers, all of which I am now applying to And Here We Are. Through my research on Filipino composers, gained a sensibility on how the dialogue between extant local music traditions and globally modern influences has occurred in the Philippines. As a hybrid-oriented composer myself, this understanding has been critical in my discovering the overall sentiment of my opera’s story.

The profundity of the trip’s impact can be formulated this way: before the trip, I had already composed a lot of music for this opera that would speak to the American (and Kneedler) side of this history. Following the trip, I can conceive of the cultural landscape within which the world of this opera exists: displaced and comingling cultures within the already multifarious sound world of the Philippines. We think of cultures as having borders, but they are more dynamic streams of fluidity that flow, eddy and permeate.

I hope you can participate in my most varied and refined musical project to date. I also hope that through the deep experience of working through this subject matter, my family’s mysterious and tragic past can begin to heal and reach a closure.

INTERVIEW: Aaron Siegel And Mallory Catlett

Collaborators Aaron Siegel (composer) and Mallory Catlett (director) have been exploring of the work of Janet Frame, and particularly the novel ‘Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room’ as they make a new opera together. They have worked together and with performers to shape Frame’s writing into performance and have encountered a range of questions and opportunities along the way.  They sat down in advance of a workshop performance of scenes from the opera on November 30th at Roulette to discuss aspects of their working process and some of the ideas that are embedded in the source materials for their new opera ‘Rainbird.’

AARON SIEGEL: Since you have worked with Frame’s writing before, how do you think your proximity to the texts makes it hard for you to synthesize them?

MALLORY CATLETT: I think it’s just the way that I worked with the material the last time. I was making a piece, and there were 21 different sources in it. So my focus was on the kinds of themes that ran through a lot of her work.  I remember when I told you about the book (Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room), I was like, “But there’s this one novel that I’ve always been interested in turning into an opera.” There are a few other of her books that are amazing stories, but this one always struck me as something I would want to work on as a stand alone work.

My process for that last piece was to retype all these excerpts from over 21 books. And so I had these giant binders that were labeled by topic like ‘weather’ and ‘pronouns,’ and I just came up with ways to categorize all this text that I had pulled, that I thought was somehow involved. My roommate used to kid me.  He said, “So you’re retyping the novel?”

So that’s how I know the language really well, is because it was a very manual—it was extremely labor-intensive. It was kind of like learning how to make something the first time.  Because I was in graduate school, and I had resources, I could be very deliberate about the way in which I arrived at the piece. I think that really informed how I make everything now. But, I feel like it’s hard for me to go to a single novel and not think about all the novels.

SIEGEL: That’s one of the interesting things that I’ve found about approaching this work with you is that as a music maker, I just would never think about going to someone’s full oeuvre to examine and make work. My interest is more about focusing on one specific thing, and making that really clear. That’s the way in which I’m a minimalist. I prefer those very minute details for one thing, and not to be concerned with the full body of work of a single person, and all the ways in which it creates a philosophy. I remember taking philosophy classes, and just really hating the notion that there was no way that my brain could actually process the sort of gestalt theories or ideas that a lot of these philosophers were thinking about. And I’ve come to realize in some ways that’s because I’m less interested in those gestalt theories, and more interested in examples of a how a philosophy is visible in everyday life

As I’ve been writing, I’ve been thinking more about the way that we’re working together, and thinking about how my role is about finding ways to concretize things and make them real and physical.

CATLETT: I think that’s why I like to work with you, because it feels like we think about things very differently. And I think that kind of thing is hard for me to do, but when I’m collaborating, it’s very refreshing because I always start from the big problem that seems extremely complicated.

It’s a process of reading everything to whittle down to what I’m really on about. It’s a little bit like when I start getting into something, and I have no idea why. I know that I’m interested or whatever. But making the work is really figuring out how it really speaks to me. And I get into things before I have any idea.

When I was working in graduate school, I was also studying with a literary professor there who happened to teach Frame. He was a post-colonial scholar. I was working with this French philosopher named Hélène Cixous, and we were doing this reading of her philosophy of Frame’s work, which he had never done. So it was pretty extensive.

And I think it had a lot to do with what I was really drawn to. And so applying that sort of philosophic framework on the writing was the way in which I understood why the writing was important, and what I was going to do.

I was listening to the radio one day, and it was some piece of music that was telling the Orpheus and Eurydice story. I think it was the Monteverdi, but I don’t know. I just had this image, and knew I was going to do a piece about Orpheus and Eurydice. And then the more I learned about Orpheus, I wondered I how could wade into that story without reproducing those gendered dynamics of the myth.

And at the same time, I was just reading Frame, and her work is extremely Eurydic and Orphic. It has lush poetry that takes you over. But it also has this kind of cyclical death pattern that’s constantly running through it. And it’s all over the novel.

SIEGEL: How do you see the Orpheus myth of playing out in ‘Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room?” Because Godfrey is sort of an Orphic character, and yet there’s not a sense of him being the poet.

CATLETT: I think this book is very Orphic because, in the last part of the myth after Eurydice dies a second time, Orpheus is actually ripped apart by these Bacchanalia women, and he becomes an oracle. He gets more dangerous because he has had this experience. He becomes more of a threat and so he is destroyed. ‘Yellow Flowers’ is much more about this part of the myth, about how the culture turns away and has to destroy the thing it is afraid of.

I’ve never really been that interested in myth. I’ve never been that interested in Greek theatre, but I think a lot of my earlier work with Frame was really understanding what myth is in a different way.

Coming back to Hélène Cixous, she describes myth as trying to find the point of origin of all of these moments.  In Orpheus you have this quintessential relationship of a man and a woman, where she’s always behind. He has to look back. So the question is: how does one subvert myths or change them at the root?

Cixous has a great way of reinterpreting Adam and Eve, which is that the knowledge is actually in the taste of the fruit, and that women have always been the ones that sought out the knowledge despite the risk. But it’s actually in the sensual kind of taste, and in the smell. And Adam is much more about prohibition and law. Like the policing of that stuff. When you go all the way back, then you can begin to unravel it on your own terms, which is what I think Frame is very much doing. I guess I’m much more of a seeker like this somehow. It feels a little bottomless sometimes, for me.

SIEGEL: I really appreciate the fact that in this collaboration, we can help and challenge each other in those ways, to see things differently and also to attend to the ways each other are seeing them. And the challenge of composing is always “what are people actually going to do?” You have to prescribe that in some ways if it’s going to have its own identity. I try to find that balance between setting things down in structurally immovable ways and letting the performers have some ownership of their material.  I think that’s why composers get a bad rap, because of the sense that they’re inflexibile. But trying to figure out how to attend to the form and also give space for the collaboration to feed into the process is really interesting.

CATLETT: Directors have that same sort of rap too. I think we’re both actually sensitive to that. I think we’re both aware of our power, and I think we share a skepticism about its necessity and danger. There was a point in my creative life where I realized that if I want performers to be invested, I have to do things that will undermine my authority.

SIEGEL: From the composer’s standpoint, power is relinquished when the written ­­­­music can’t be heard until it is performed by live musicians. I do a lot of playback and mocking things up on my computer, and I can do a lot of fiddling in that way. But then there’s a certain point where my mock-ups can’t capture the true subtleties of the instrument.  And that’s good. It lets the music breathe, and lets other people take ownership.  It lets performers come into the process and feel empowered rather than feel like they’re articulating my vision or my very precise directions.

CATLETT: A lot of people who don’t have any experience of the process have this thing in their mind, which is that, “Oh yeah, the director has the answers.” And then the performers just execute those answers. We have to dispel that. Once performers start rehearsing I can give performers a suggestion, and they’re like, “Oh, OK, that’s done. We’ll do it that way.” But then I look at it with them and think, “No, we could do that 3,000 different ways.” That the tighter it gets, the more options there are moving forward.

That’s why it is fun to work on this with you, with these singers, from the beginning. Because I feel like they’re bringing that element into it from the inception. And that’s really useful for me, because I’m part of the composing process in a very passive way where I can just take in a lot of information. Where I don’t have to produce.

And maybe that’s why working in opera and with music is good too, because there’s always something to do. There’s always another thing that the performers can focus on. And then I can just make adjustments to see how things change without it being a singular focus on that.



Percussionist Ross Karre is the Co-Artistic Director of the International Contemporary Ensemble and one of the lead designers, producers of the upcoming Nubian Word for Flowers. This opera has taken a unique shape and Ross’s role as both a designer of video and audio elements and as a producer working with Ione to help shape the second act of the opera which was incomplete at the time of Pauline’s passing in 2016. EiO Co-Founder Jason Cady sat down with Ross to discuss the project from his point of view.

JASON CADY:  First, could you tell us about your background and your role in the project?

ROSS KARRE:  I’m the percussionist and co-artistic director of the International Contemporary Ensemble. I was invited by Pauline and Ione to collaborate as a video projection designer on The Nubian Word for Flowers back in November of 2015.

We spent about a year working on a visual design scheme, and did some tests at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with Monica Duncan, who’s the other video designer on the project.

CADY: Could you tell me some more about your background in video. I’m trying to wrap my head around it because I think of you as a percussionist.

KARRE: While I was getting a bachelor’s in percussion performance at Oberlin, I accidentally picked up a minor in cinema studies, which had a lot of hands-on video art production classes, starting with a woman named Rian Brown, who got me excited about experimental video.

Then when I went to University of California in San Diego, working a lot with Miller Puckette and other electronic musicians, I was the collaborator who could do stuff with video. So I started to hone that craft a little more.

When I finished my percussion doctorate at UCSD I decided to stay and get an MFA in film and video art. Since then, I’ve done a handful of video projection design projects per year. Sometimes it’s with percussion, but most of the time I don’t play percussion at all when I’m also designing video.

CADY: How did you realize the video design from the libretto for Nubian Word for Flowers?

KARRE: We worked with Pauline one-on-one for months to come up with the translation process between the libretto and the video design. Along the way, Pauline was adding notated score elements to the libretto.

She got about half to three quarters of the way through, and then she passed away in November of 2016. So that year between when she invited Monica and I to start working on the images, until she passed away, was spent collecting imagery, deciding on projection design options, staging, blocking, and talking through details.

Monica is responsible for the video images themselves. I’m just helping design the video systems. She has a background as a printmaker. So in making these cards and artifacts, they’re really beautifully rendered images that look authentic.

CADY: I saw the libretto had a kind of color coding scheme, what did it mean?

KARRE:  Ione and Pauline had a shared document they both typed into. When Monica and I looked at that, we both confessed it was a little difficult to understand. So we started to make time and space charts, which would essentially read like a score: descriptions and image thumbnails, blocking, character maps, things like that.

Their way of giving us information was through that color coding system. The color coding was something like green for images, and purple for cast, and orange for sound design. They would highlight text that pertained to Senem Pirler on sound design, or for Monica and me for images.

Gradually this one libretto document became the working method for communication between all the parties. It’s a comprehensive document that has lines of text delivered by singers or actors, then long bits of text about the staging, blocking, design elements.

CADY: I’ve actually taken to writing my librettos with screenwriting software, because the format is so clear. It forces me to always be conscious of not just what’s being sung but—

KARRE: Where it’s being sung.

CADY: Yeah, and what the action is, et cetera.

KARRE: Our process has been one of translation. How do we get that comprehensive intermediate experience at Roulette?

CADY: I remember reading in the libretto that something was happening on the higher back portion of the stage. And I thought, “Oh, Roulette.”

KARRE: Back in February we decided to switch from talking generally to talking about Roulette. We have this stencil which is a black and white line drawing, that has all the stages. It’s a proscenium view as opposed to a section or plan view. We call it the Roulette stencil. It’s really simple, but it helped Ione and the video designers think about the space and how it translates. It gives you the idea of what it’s like to put a person there.

CADY: Will you also play percussion in the piece?

KARRE: No. Nathan Davis, the other percussionist in ICE, will play percussion. It’s possible that Levy Lorenzo will also play percussion. But he has a sound design role as well. It’s a bit confusing, because a lot of people wear multiple hats.

But the primary design team is Ione as the director and librettist, and she’s also playing the role of The Interviewer. She has a table in front of her with an overhead camera aimed bird’s eye view onto the table. So she can place different cards that are artifacts relating to the history of this piece. Then those images get manipulated by Monica. She’s operating that live.

The sound design is handled by Senem Pirler. She worked directly with Pauline on selection of sounds, both Foley sounds, artifact sounds, historical sounds, and the performance of Pauline’s analog oscillators.

Last on the design team is Nick DeMaison, who is a conductor and composer. He is the hero responsible for taking all the fragments and sketches that Pauline had completed for the opera, and compiling them into one document, and re-engraving them in Sibelius.

Then there’s the cast of six, an orchestra of eight, and a chorus of three, who use their voice in different ways and play auxiliary instruments.

CADY: How were the unfinished parts of the opera filled out?

KARRE: The first act is almost 100 percent notated, and the second act uses almost 100 percent text anthology scores. Specifically, it starts with the piece “Heart of Tones” for solo wind instrument and accompanying wind instruments and sine tones.

It’s followed by a piece called “Out of the Dark,” which uses the same tuning, droning method, and then finishes with a piece called “Earth Ears” which evolves out of the drones of “Out of the Dark” into a more active place.

Meanwhile, the libretto developed following the same rules as those scores. In the second act, the goal dramatically is to create a really long slow-building arc. Several of Pauline’s pieces from her anthology of text scores lend themselves to that slow build. We’ve recorded nearly everything we’ve done with Pauline, from little concerts at Jack in Brooklyn to the shows at Lincoln Center. So we have a library of pieces and we just swapped in recordings of ICE playing these pieces, to get a feel of what they might sound like.

After a bunch of trials we landed on these three pieces in sequence, to represent the three wars. And it works. It’s stunning how these text pieces so perfectly suited this piece.

CADY: Are you using Pauline’s vintage analog oscillators?

KARRE: Yeah. There’s two or three analog oscillators from the ‘60s that Pauline used for a lot of her pieces. They provide sub-sonic tones, but also audible frequencies into the patch. We’re also using, for brief moments, Pauline’s Expanded Instrument System—EIS—to process some of the acoustic instruments.

CADY: Could you describe the Expanded Instrument System? I saw Claire Chase perform one of Pauline’s pieces and she didn’t play flute at all. She spoke, and her voice was manipulated in real time.

KARRE: That piece is called Intensity 20.15 — A Tribute to Grace Chase. It’s a play on the Varèse flute piece. The subtitle is A Tribute to Grace Chase, which is Claire’s grandmother’s name. It uses the EIS system on Claire’s spoken voice, and some flutelike instruments: an ocarina, a harmonica, stuff like that.

Levy Lorenzo operates the EIS in that piece. Pauline had the opportunity to teach Levy how the parameters can be controlled on a system that’s decades old. It used to be analog systems, then early digital systems, and side chained effects that are controlled in a unique way, and ended up being in MaxMSP. It took on a life of its own, and it’s a really interesting artificial intelligent improvising partner.

We’re lucky that Levy’s on the project, because he’s one of the few people that Pauline taught how to use the software.

CADY: So Levy will manipulate some of the live sounds in an improvisatory way. But is the MaxMSP patch also improvising in Nubian Word for Flowers?

KARRE: Yeah, there are stochastic procedures and algorithms built into the Expanded Instrument System patch. They create a really complex sound world, where it’s hard to tell the origin of the sound samples and how it’s being manipulated.

The way Ione has described it, it’s Pauline’s own presence in the piece. Both her analog oscillators and the Expanded Instrument System bring Pauline’s designs into the piece in a way that really feels like her presence is there.

CADY: Will the audience feel a big shift going into act two, or will it feel more seamless?

KARRE: They will notice a huge shift. It’s not just the result of the fact that Pauline didn’t have the chance to write a lot of the music for act two. The shift is actually a dramatic shift. The first act is about the history of Lord Kitchener and the imperial goals of Great Britain. We learn about his affectionate relationship with the Nubian people. We meet a Nubian boatman. We meet his friend and potential lover Colonel O.

Then in the second act he’s on trial in a kind of purgatory because he died in a boat explosion on the HMS Hampshire. And the process is trying to help him understand or atone for his unethical behavior. He’s asked by interrogation with Ione, as The Interviewer to speak to these moments in his life where he has been a war criminal.

Ione levels these anecdotal criticisms at him from each battle: Battle of Khartoum, the Great War, etc. Supporting Ione are these testimonies from a chorus in the loft at Roulette and their sound will be processed, drone-based, aggressive, dissonant beat frequencies.

It’s really spooky, whereas the first act surprisingly plays with the conventions of traditional opera. There’s a waltz. There’s tonality, modality, dodecaphonic writing.

We had to make a lot of guesses about what to do in the second act. But the drama is so clear that these pieces fell into place without us feeling too self-conscious about their selection. And Ione supported all of the research we did to figure out which existing pieces become the bed of instrumental work and electronic sounds for the piece.

CADY: Had Pauline said anything about her plans for the second act?

KARRE: She didn’t give too many hints to me, but she did speak with Ione a lot about that. Ione is a co-composer in many ways. She helped structure a lot of these pieces. So, it’s with that experience that we made these selections.

When we were building the video design we showed [Pauline] the options of this overhead camera, and said this has a lot of parity with older analog video technologies, with a live camera into a CRT monitor. And she said, “Yeah, that feels right, because I’m an analog gal.”

We took that to heart, thinking about it like, “Which of our video decisions pay homage to an analog sensibility?” And we’re doing that with the sound design: the analog oscillators, the way the effects are coupled together, and the way the EIS is built.

CADY: In our conversations with Pauline and Ione, I wasn’t sure if the staging was going to be super high tech.

KARRE: Where it’s technically current is in projection mapping software which is the ability to map images onto precise surfaces. Also the intermixing of a live camera with HD video and stills is used a lot. But the way we’ve used these postcards as a consistent theme brings it a timelessness.

Ione can play many roles, but it’s consistent that she’s a judge or an attorney doing research or an investigator or a journalist doing research with these different artifacts. When she’s organizing these artifacts on the table, that organization is scaled up to these large projection screens, which are also scenically the triangular white sails of the Nubian boatman. The Nubian boatman is played by Zizo from Egypt. He’s stationed upstage right on a felucca ship. He serves as an interstitial singer/songwriter role that helps to contextualize the Nubian culture.

CADY: Was there anything about Pauline’s music that people misunderstand, or would be surprised to learn?

KARRE: Pauline’s not afraid of a pretty melody, and you’ll see that in the first act of this opera. When I’ve seen her improvise she’ll put warm, beautiful, melodic gestures into her playing.

People who know Pauline really well won’t be surprised to hear these tonal melodies in the first act of this piece. People who sort of know Pauline might be surprised by that.

For me, the biggest surprise is that there aren’t more of these operas. She wasn’t typecast as an opera composer. But looking at how intricate all of the details of this came together, I wish she had the opportunity to do more of them, because it’s a super interesting narrative and intriguing way of approaching it that’ll create surprises for everybody in the audience.



Ione, in the absence of her creative and life partner Pauline Oliveros, is the driving force behind the upcoming premiere of Nubian Word for Flowers: A Phantom Opera, which is a joint production between EiO, International Contemporary Ensemble and Minstry of Maåt. In this interview with EiO co-founder Jason Cady, Ione talks about some of the journeys and questions that led her to shape the story and ideas behind Nubian Word for Flowers. Tickets to the Nov. 3o premiere at Roulette are available at

JASON CADY: Could you first tell us about your background as a writer?

IONE: I was a freelance writer, based in Europe—in France and Spain—but always returning to the U.S. In the ‘80s, I was in New York City and was a frequent contributor to the Village Voice.

I was part of the early women’s movement. I wrote for the early Ms. Magazine, and other magazines. Some of the articles related to my family research, which began with the discovery of my great grandmother’s diary from 1868. She was a feminist and an abolitionist, and a wonderful writer. So when I found her, I plunged into becoming a historian myself to find out who she was.

That book, Pride of Family: Four generations of American Women of Color was first published by Summit Books, an imprint of Simon and Schuster in ’91. It was a New York Times notable book and on the New York Public Library’s list of 25 books to remember. That book had many different generations and now is an eBook with Random House. It was republished as a classic in about 2006.

CADY: Sounds like a fascinating book.

IONE: I also got very involved with Njinga Mbande, of the country that’s now Angola, when I saw an engraving of her. It shows her sitting on the back of one of her servants, conducting this interview with a Portuguese governor in the fifteen hundreds. He had tossed a pillow for her to sit on. And she said, “No.” She motioned to one of her servants to bend over, and conducted the rest of the interview that way. She was a diplomat and warrior, who ruled as a king for 40 years. I did a ton of research on her. I found the primary Njinga scholars, and by that time, I was working with Pauline Oliveros. She and I had met in ’85.

We began to work on Njinga The Queen King, which was kind of an opera. We called it a play with music and pageantry. It opened at BAM’s Next Wave Festival in ’93. That went on for about eight years of performances throughout the country.

CADY: And what was the premise for The Nubian Word for Flowers?

IONE: It was inspired by the Nubian people, and by Lord Kitchener of Khartoum. I have written many articles on Egypt and traveled there as a travel writer, but also as just as regular person.

I have written about an island over there that’s called Kitchener Island. So when Pauline and I were performing in a city called Kitchener, in Ontario, Canada—I wondered what that was. What it was about, and whether it was the same Kitchener of Kitchener Island, this island of flowers of the Nile.

Turned out that it was the same Kitchener. I began to research him. He had a reputation as a fierce general as well as a botanist who created beautiful flowers on the island. The city is called Kitchener because Lord Kitchener had met an untimely end in World War I. Canada was very much involved in that war. And as a tribute they changed the name of the town from Berlin to Kitchener.

My story in the opera begins as Lord Kitchener is on a secret mission to Russia when his boat encounters a German mine. At the same time, there’s a great energy that is coming from beyond time, and sending a Nubian boatman into the same storm that Kitchener is encountering. Both the Nubian boatman and Kitchener find themselves arriving on an island of flowers in the Nile.

It’s a version of the island that Kitchener knew. And the Nubian Boatman is a much more serious figure. We don’t exactly know who he is at that juncture, but he has been forced to come there by the same storm. They encounter an island that is alive.

It’s a question of moving through memory, flowers, of personages who have been in his life, as well as those in the Nubian Boatman’s life, moving back and forth in time, up to the diaspora of the Nubian people, which is also a part of what we’re bringing attention to with the story. So the island forces a kind of memory. And without these memories, it seems difficult for anyone to leave the island.

CADY: When I read the libretto it struck me that it was more focused on sounds and images than the words that are sung or spoken.

IONE: I think that’s why Pauline and I loved to work together, and the way we worked is that I’m hearing and seeing things. Like with Njinga, I was hearing her war cry. I was hearing the voices of the ancestors speaking. I knew Pauline could do that. That’s the way Pauline and I worked. She was relying on my input in terms of the sounds as well. The sounds are important. It’s a sonic journey. The flowers are alive. There’s sound coming from every element on the island, including these phantom figures who are able to appear at different times.

CADY: Where did the sound of the flowers come from?

IONE: Well, I can’t tell you. That’s a secret. [laughs] They’re coming from various sources, and of course there’s a whole range of Pauline’s electronics that she designated that create a tapestry of sound that moves in different ways throughout the story.

We’re collaborating with Egyptian musicians. And we were both moved by the plight of the Nubian people being ousted from their lands by the flood of the Aswan Dam. Pauline very much wanted to bring that out to the world. You say Nubia and people don’t know what you’re talking about. This is bringing that mystery to the forefront. And we’re actually bringing in Zizo from Cairo to perform.

CADY: What do you mean by the term “phantom opera?”

IONE: Well, there are many who may or may not be alive. They’re alive to everybody who finds themselves in this place between dimensions. These are the phantoms that come alive to Lord Kitchener, and perhaps he’s a phantom himself.

But the Nubian people who are on the island we could consider phantom to the colonial element on the island. So they’re there, they’re seen, but not quite experienced as alive. The whole Nubian aspect in relation to an island that Lord Kitchener develops with these beautiful flowers is a phantom layer to him.

CADY: What can you say in opera that you wouldn’t express in your journalistic writing or other forms like novels, memoirs or poetry?

IONE: Opera is the kind of word that hangs on you and weighs you down. [laughs] I don’t even use the word “poetry” much because people expect certain things out of you that are, what I call, “old mind.” But let me just answer that by saying it has come upon me gradually.

For example, with Njinga, I wrote a piece for The Village Voice on her. I realized that the story wouldn’t come without my writing it in present tense, or in first person. But when I finished I could see it and I could hear it. There’s a lot of sonic elements in her life, like this war cry that could be heard for miles.

When I met Pauline around the same time, I was already thinking this could be on stage. This could be music theater. Very naively, I said, “Hey Pauline, do you want to do some music for this show?” And for many years later she and I both laughed about that moment. And we were immersed in that for years, in a wonderful and difficult way.

So that came upon me gradually, but it came through being with Pauline. I wanted to be able to hear the voices of the ancestors. For the audiences to hear that in their seats. Like as if it was whispering in their ears. And Pauline could make that happen.

I was very inspired when we were up there in Kitchener, and the story started coming to me. It was a poetic-type text first. When I finished it felt like an opera.

CADY: Since the word “opera” has a lot of baggage, or might be old fashioned, is there another context for theater that you think this work belongs to?

IONE: Oh, no, It’s definitely opera. I mean, in terms of singing. We’re also referencing opera. Pauline’s having a good time doing that. What other forms would you think of? What were you thinking when you asked that question?

CADY: Well, I didn’t have an answer in mind.

IONE: Okay [laughs].

CADY: I also write operas and I feel like an outsider to the world of opera. I don’t fit in. But I’m not sure where I do fit in.

IONE: Right. [laughs] Well, yeah. I guess we’re all outsiders— I mean, that’s more what I’m thinking anyway. And what Pauline would be thinking.

CADY: How many works did you two end up collaborating on?

IONE: We did the Lunar Opera together at Lincoln Center. We did A Dance Opera in Primeval Time; Io and Her and the Trouble with Him. We did a film together called Dreams of the Jungfrau. She did the music for that film. And we did Oracle Bones, Mirror Dreams, which was done in different locations throughout the world.

And we performed together. I’ve been an improvisational, spoken word, sound-text-artist, for a number of years. So we performed all over the world together, and have a couple of recordings.

CADY: Is there anything about Pauline or her work that is misunderstood or that people aren’t aware of?

IONE: She had a great sense of humor about everything she did. Humor was just stupendously important about her. She’s not one of those grumpy composers.

Some are unfamiliar with the vast scope of Pauline’s work and her writings. In particular, focus on her text scores and improvisational modalities has led to some being unaware of the many notated scores that she consistently continued to create through the years along with wonderful new text scores. Our Nubian Word for Flowers represents a musical and philosophical fusion, if you will, of her interests and talents.

In addition, those who have heard of her being the founder of “meditational music” may have expectations along those lines and can be stunned by the amazing dynamism and strength of her solo and group performances.

Pauline was and continues to be, always surprising—shaking us out of our expectations and bringing us back to listening in the moment.

INTERVIEW: Nicole Murphy

Composer Nicole Murphy has been spending a lot of time with EiO over the last couple of weeks as we prepare her opera ‘Mandela Was Late’ for the upcoming Flash Operas.  As this interview that Jason Cady conducted with her proves, she thinks about storytelling in a methodical way and digs in deep when a commission pulls her into uncharted territory.  

CADY: In your blog post you talked about adapting the Peter Mehlman story Mandela Was Late for your opera. So let’s talk about the music you composed for it.

MURPHY: The music is rhythmically based and the construction of time is represented through the wood block which goes through this series of metric modulations in the piece so you always feel like you’re pulled out of time, out of the situation for a moment, and that the clock is this overbearing character in the piece.

The story and the music are intertwined. It’s kind of hard to separate one from the other. One of the big compositional challenges was to create the sense of tedium of a bureaucratic meeting. How can you have enough contrast but still have this sense of monotony of sitting through this process that both these characters realize is ridiculous?

CADY: That reminds me of the book “Osmin’s Rage” by Peter Kivy, which was inspired by a letter Mozart wrote to this father about composing Abduction From the Seraglio. It was this idea of, “how do you make music describe an ugly emotion yet also sound beautiful?” It must have been a real challenge to represent tedium without actually being tedious.

MURPHY: Yeah, you need the audience to experience tedium but obviously a rewarding sense of tedium. It was a fun challenge.

CADY: You mentioned the wood block and the metric modulations. I remember there is usually a quarter pulse on the snare or a dotted quarter pulse on the wood blocks and lots of changing meters. Could you tell us more about your rhythmic logic?

MURPHY: It was based around this idea of representing time. Essentially, the woodblock is the second hand of a clock. The crotchet equals 60, but occasionally it doesn’t. There is this kind of tension between how we feel time and how we measure time. I wanted all the action in this meeting to feel slightly at odd with the concept of time. That’s where the rhythmic construction came from. It’s also something that I’ve been playing with of late.

CADY: So you’ve explored this in other pieces?

MURPHY: Not linking it to time as much but the sense of shifting the grid underneath the parts. I like the element of surprise that brings. You lock into a groove and all of a sudden it’s interrupted and feels quite uncomfortable and then it snaps back in.

CADY: Many composers seem to not really understand that to do interesting metric or tempo things there first needs to be that sense of a groove for it to be perceivable.

MURPHY: To me it’s all about subverting expectations. It sounds cruel to your audience, but it’s about pulling the rug out from under them. I like to be surprised musically.

CADY: You said the music and story were intertwined for you. Did that lead you to try anything new?

MURPHY: The one-track mind of the piece is driven by the context of the story. Had it been a fifteen-minute piece that didn’t have this story attached I would have changed tracks earlier. It forced me to think of other subtle ways to do contrast, to give a sense of forward motion before that interrupting, woodblock pulls it back into the second-hand ticking.

Nicole’s Chicken

CADY: I was struck by your compositions for guitar, especially your chamber piece, Stolen. Are you a guitarist?

MURPHY: I’m most certainly not a guitar player. I managed to get through most of my schooling without ever having to write for guitar. I hadn’t avoided it purposefully but it’s one of those things that doesn’t come up in orchestration class. When I had to write the electric guitar chamber piece for a festival I thought, “I can just hide it in the background, play a few harmonics and no one will notice that I don’t know what I’m doing.” Then they said, “Could you write a guitar duo?” That project sparked a bigger 45-minute electric guitar and chamber ensemble piece. The last few years of my life have been dominated by guitar. But my instrument is piano and some woodwind and strings as well.

CADY: The guitar sounded so idiomatic you fooled me.

MURPHY: That’s just lots of score study and fingering charts. The thing about guitar that’s so exciting is there are so many ways to realize a certain passage. Often I’d think, “it works this way,” and then I’d put it in front of a guitarist and they would say, “We can play it this way or this way or this way.” There just aren’t as many possibilities with other instruments.

CADY: And what about your classical guitar piece?

MURPHY: That was part of the Norfolk festival. They had a whole heap of guitarists there: three different guitarists involved in that project.

CADY: Is guitar a little less common in New Music in Australia?

MURPHY: Yeah, definitely. I know it’s a big part of the new music scene in the U.S. but it’s not so common here. That sounds ridiculous because it’s such a common instrument, but it’s not part of the new music scene.

CADY: You get quite a lot of performances in the US. Do you have a connection here?

MURPHY: I don’t know. It’s strange. There have been a couple of years where my music was performed more over there than it was at home. I have no idea, but I guess I just feel very fortunate.

CADY: What’s going on in the Australian scene?

MURPHY: We have a really vibrant new music scene. Where I live in Brisbane it has really grown and flourished in the last five years. We’re the smaller city to Sydney and Melbourne which have really strong scenes. Both those cities have a distinct sound world and I like being up here in Brisbane because I have more freedom. I’m not really locked into those scenes. Australia is very active because it’s so far removed from everywhere else. You have to make your own projects happen. It’s very local. We have amazing musicians.

CADY: Plus you can have a garden with a dog and chickens.

MURPHY: It is really lovely. Before I started my PhD I had a pretty thriving vegetable garden with lots of fruit trees and stuff. The fruit trees remain but the vegetables have since died. But the chickens are just funny little creatures. One of them we called Kanye because she was the loudest.

CADY: You also composed a previous opera, right?

MURPHY: Yes, it’s called The Kamikaze Mind and it was performed in New York last month. The libretto is from this amazing novella by an Australian author Richard James Allen. It’s about an astronaut who falls into a black hole and is scattered into an infinite number of pieces all around the universe. So the story is essentially him trying to put himself together with these fragments of his life and memory. It’s organized like a dictionary. You get a word and its definition tells the story. It’s ordered alphabetically but you can read it a number of different ways. You can read it via themes or read different letters or chronologically. Some of the definitions make you laugh out loud and others make you cry for humanity.

I used to joke about it with friends because I got this book in the mail and I have no idea who sent it to me. Whenever I shared it with friends, if they were composers I’d say, “but I’ve got dibs on writing an opera from it.”

CADY: Someone sent you this book anonymously, and you never found out who?

MURPHY: No, I never found out. I have absolutely no idea.

CADY: Even after writing the opera no one came forward? It’s amazing!

MURPHY: I often forget about that part of the story, but it’s kind of wonderful.

CADY: You could write an opera about your opera!

MURPHY: I sure could.

The Space as a Canvas

Artist and Designer Casey Alexander Smith is the scenic designer for our upcoming Flash Operas show at Symphony Space on May 5 and 6, 2017.  Casey comes to this project with a strong sense of how opera plays in our society and how to contextualize it anew.  Here are some of his thoughts from planning the look and feel of the Flash Operas.

Opera traditionally had a significant niche in society. Elements of grandeur and allure have made it enjoyable for many. For some, however, it resembles a sophistication and timelessness that can be foreign. Conceptualizing a design that pays homage to the mysticism of the art form while presenting the work in a contemporary, easily digestible format was a challenge. The task lead me down paths I hadn’t explored before and took tolls on my process. When it was all on my drafting table there were two distinct themes that stood out for Flash Operas: the history associated to a grande drape coupled with a continuity in aesthetics. In actuality this project involves six distinct stories in a short matter of time. So in theory it requires six different designs. With my concepts I envisioned the space as a canvas and I wanted the stories to illuminate that canvas.

Coming from a visual arts background this gave me an instant connection to modern artists like Jackson Pollock and Keith Haring. Both of them played with the simplicity of the “canvas” and the rhythm of media as it traveled—sometimes out of the artist control—across the canvas. To this regard each piece will exist within its own framework telling the quick yet important flashes that it had been composed to do. Some of these stories rely on simplicity and lack of color while others emphasize the importance of variety. In collaboration with the director, Rob Reese, and the costume designer, Fay Leshner, we shaped a production that will represent a collection of vibrant and poignant vignettes.

-Casey Alexander Smith

INTERVIEW: Cristina Lord

Composer Cristina Lord comes to her work with a wide open mind and sensibility.  In this conversation with EiO Co-Founder Jason Cady, she discusses her interest in electronic music, pop songs, and in using text to tell stories.  Her Flash Opera ‘Pledge Drive’ will be featured in three performances at Symphony Space on May 5 and 6, 2017.

CADY: I enjoyed your piece “Life on Mars” and it made me wonder if you came out of a pop background or a more classical one.

LORD: My training was mostly in classical music but in the past couple years I really got into electronic music. I made an album that was basically me learning how to use Logic. That’s what “Life on Mars” is from: this album of experimenting with things on the program. That was really fun.

Since then, I moved onto Max MSP and I joined the laptop ensemble at CSU Long Beach where I did my masters. It’s a quartet and we write exclusively on Max and perform the pieces live. I’m very intrigued by electronic music. It appeals to the perfectionist side of my personality because I can control every sound. You can do things that live performers can’t do.

CADY: In addition to the academic electronic music do you have an interest in pop music?

LORD: Yeah, definitely. I actually did my master’s thesis on popular influence in classical music. I discussed composers who have approached this issue of the divide between the two realms in various ways because I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that there are these two distinct camps: you’re either a pop artist or a classical composer. Why do we need to have this distinction? Why can’t we just be musicians or artists who create music?

With my own music I like to breach this divide. With the opera I wrote for you guys some of that pop side came out and I learned to embrace this aspect of my musical personality. I basically just see music as music. I’m interested in making music that appeals to a lot of people, not necessarily in a commercial way but in an accessible way.

CADY: Which artists did you discuss in your thesis?

LORD: Jacob TV’s opera The News. Steve Reich’s rock band influence in some of his music. Alvin Lucier’s, Nothing is Real. Gabriel Kahane’s song cycle Craigslistlieder. I talked about quite a few pieces. I wanted to cover different approaches to this problem. Either taking media directly, like Lucier using “Strawberry Fields Forever,” in the teapot, or taking instrumentation like Steve Reich using electric guitars and drums.

CADY: Since you also sing have you done anything that’s singer/songwriter-ish?

LORD: Sometimes I sing and play electronics or the piano as a quasi-pop artist, but I don’t know if I would call myself a singer/songwriter. I usually do solo voice and electronics, just because I either want to be a pianist in some other capacity or sing with electronics.

Cristina Lord. Photo courtesy the artist.

CADY: Let’s get to your opera. It’s a hilarious story by Patty Marx called Pledge Drive about the author fundraising money to support her lazy lifestyle. The first thing I noticed was you use a big opera voice in the opening for a comic effect.

LORD: Yeah, it’s supposed to be over the top and ridiculous. The idea is that it’s opening with a cadenza. It’s her chance to show off and be the center of attention which leads nicely into “You were just listening to an uninterrupted hour of Patty.”

CADY: And the flute tends to be flamboyant which seems to be taking off from that initial idea.

LORD: Overall the piece is pretty flamboyant, but the flute definitely gets to show off and take on this role that the opening has of this showy nature and providing fills and accents and doubling where necessary to maintain this level of something ridiculous.

CADY: Are there any other ways you portray humor in the music?

LORD: I have a lot of shifts that happen musically. I was thinking of it as waiting room music. This repeating jazzy interlude comes back throughout and ties the piece together. Between that we have these exaggerated emotional sections. For example, when the soprano sings “as of three years ago Patty was totally dependent on parental funding.” The emotional shifts are over the top to make it clear that it’s sarcastic. It’s supposed to be fun and we’re not taking it too seriously.

It starts off tonal, and then decays into a more chaotic texture. There’s a section where she’s at an ATM. At that point I change from something that’s happy-go-lucky and innocent to something that’s falling apart until we get to the climax which is “Patty will blow you” which I thought was the darkest part of the text. It’s like, “Whoa! How serious is this?” It seems like everything is falling apart in Patty’s life and I wanted the music to reflect this. From there, there’s a shift back to this waiting room vibe as we close off the piece, but this time it’s deconstructed into something that is not nearly as innocent to reflect this loss of innocence that Patty experiences.

CADY: One of the reasons I find the story funny is because I can relate to it since it pokes fun of flaky creative types. Do you identify with the story?

LORD: Yeah a lot of us can relate to that. A lot of artist types like to hear ourselves talk, and being an artist or a composer comes with a certain level of privilege. It’s not really the most lucrative profession.

CADY: How did you compose the opera?

LORD: First, I spent a lot of time with the libretto, read it out loud a lot and tried to decipher the emotional content and any deeper meaning I could find within the text. After I had a trajectory in mind, I started playing around with some ideas. I wrote it pretty linearly. I started where the text started. And I just went straight through. I knew the climax was going to be at “Patty will blow you” and that it would deteriorate until there. I wanted some motifs to occur throughout but at the same time I wanted it to feel more through-composed and go through these different shifts. I spent some time with each part playing around with different ideas and seeing what went with the emotional content the best. It started as a piano vocal score and I orchestrated it from there. The cadenza I added at the end, so that opening part I actually wrote at the end.

CADY: Did the story inspire you to try new things?

LORD: I’ve written a lot for voice but I had never done an opera, so thinking about the theatrics was new, and really inspiring for me. I enjoy collaborating with artists, dancers, film and video techs, but I’m not used to doing theater which is exciting and interesting. I tried to keep in mind how it would look and what the singers would be doing.

Level: Keeping it Experimental

EiO Co-Founder Matthew Welch was sitting in rehearsal this week for our upcoming Flash Operas show at Symphony Space, and getting a chance to see his latest work for EiO, Level, start to come to life.  This blogpost, which explores some of the musical techniques embedded in the piece, also touches on the personal aspects of this work. 

It’s been almost 7 years since Experiments in Opera started planning its first show, over which I’ve tried out a number of ways to circumvent the assumptions of how an opera had to be made. More often than not, the subject matter, media involved, new narrative structures and the scale of a work were the experimental factors in my opera work, whereas I was more or less working towards a more intuitive and nuanced musical style that was increasingly less experimental in concept. For Flash Operas, EiO revisited the idea of small scale opera – a concept still experimental, but something I began to get somewhat more comfortable with. In the interest of pushing myself, I was interested in taking a little trip back to some of my more conceptual music roots.

The Level, by Keith Scribner, is a short work of fiction that depicts a scene in which the tension between a couple expecting their first child starts to come to a head. The man, a botanist, starts to obsess about the environment of their apartment, blows a bunch of money on a level, and attempts to measure and countermeasure the uneven floors. The woman questions her man’s sanity and has interjections of her budding maternal instinct.

The idea of a device and the act of measurement prompted me to conceive of the music in a more measured and theoretical way than I had in a long time. The idea of a space being uneven led me to the musical metaphors as odd meters and slopes in the form of string glissandi and vectors in the form of rising and falling melodic lines.

The glissandi were organized by depth of slope, starting deep and fast, covering less vertical pitch distance as the piece progress, and eventually evening out. From here I thought of harmonies that would intersect these slopes in a regular measured rhythm. The result of the experiment here was a new language of chromatically related triads that were slaved to the string slopes, a new way of conceiving the old idea of counterpoint.

This chromatically-related triadic system resulting from the slopes, when boiled down to their common harmonic denominator, suggested a hexachordal collection – the hexachordal set also then suggested triads based on roots themselves forming an augmented chord – a very center-less and floating type of dissonant chord.

Score Excerpt from ‘Level’ by Matthew Welch.

Keeping it real – the topic of the story

The fun about all these nerdy ways of calculating the music for a very domestic scenario is how my life mirrored the topic of the story. My wife, who the piece is dedicated to, and I were expecting our first child during the “conception” stage of the piece, and the work blossomed during our child’s first few months. Needless to elaborate, but during this time we felt a bunch of new stresses in anticipation of our baby, and during which time I became fixated on a many number of things, and those which lent themselves to some form of numerical control, like timeliness, money, scheduling, and not excluding house arrangements.

Keeping it dramatic – Tying it together

Still hoping to create a dramatic work in light of all these anal-retentive measurements, there was an overall design at work which I hoped would translate to building tension towards a dramatic climax, and a natural resolution.

To control the dramatic arc involved continually contracting odd-metrical cycles to heighten the tension with an ever slowing or flattening slope (the pitch-depth of the glissandi), creating a musical sense of parallax for the listener, where one form of tension increased as the other decreased, until the moment of resolution in the characters’ dramatic relationship coincides with the arrival of an even metrical context and complete flattening of the slope (drone).

This moment of arrival is timed for when the anxieties of the two characters dissipates and they make a gesture to rekindle. In terms of creating a world and scene through music, the sections built on the sliding slopes represented the real space and center-less hexachordal floating nebula represented the dream space out of which the pregnant woman awakes at the start, and out of time moments of her interior thinking directed towards the audience.

Since every experiment has to have some conclusive data, sitting here in the rehearsals I think all of this experimental calculation underneath the surface has actually helped produce one of my most dramatic and touching works to date, with a real sense of naturalistic narrative development, and allowed me to conjoin my creative work with my burgeoning role as a parent!

– Matthew Welch

INTERVIEW: Miguel Frasconi

EiO Artistic Director Jason Cady interviewed Flash Opera composer Miguel Frasconi about his early development as an experimental music innovator and about his approach to adapting ‘Things You Should Know’ by AM Homes for the opera stage. 

CADY: I wanted to start off with your background. I know you’ve worked with a lot of important artists like John Cage, Morton Subotnick, Joan La Barbara, and Jon Hassell.

FRASCONI: Yeah, well one name that you didn’t mention was Jim Tenney who I studied composition with up in Toronto. Jim and I worked a lot together and were really close, so he was huge influence on me.

CADY: And your father Antonio was an artist; you told me earlier that he was friends with Gerry Mulligan and Earle Brown.

FRASCONI: Yeah, I grew up in a creative household. Both my parents were visual artists, my dad was a pretty well-known woodcut artist and my mom, Leona Pierce, was also a well-known woodcut artist, but, as women did in the ‘50s, she gave up her creative work in order to make her household and family her creative work. When I was growing up every weekend was a dinner party with different people coming over like Nat Hentoff and Pete Seeger. They knew those people quite well from Greenwich Village which is where I was born.

from “On the Slain Collegians.” 1970. Antonio Frasconi.

CADY: Also, part of your background are all these interesting instruments you play. I know you play glass instruments, the Buchla modular synthesizer, piano, and also various world music instruments like mbira and gamelan.

FRASCONI: In high school I was a sort of sound freak. Living so close to New York when I was young, my dad would take me to all these great concerts. There was one really amazing series by the Juilliard Contemporary Music Ensemble that was at that time lead by Dennis Russell Davies called “New and Newer Music.” I went religiously. That’s where I heard my first Feldman, my first Cage, and my first Stockhausen during the American premiere of Stimmung. It was really quite amazing.

In the ‘60s there was this sort of antiestablishment, anti-history, anti-academia bent going on so I wanted to find creative work that was uniquely twentieth century. At the time, what people called “new music,” particularly electronic music, was uniquely twentieth century. My brother was a filmmaker and one thing he said was that he liked film because it was a uniquely twentieth century art form. I looked for music that was uniquely twentieth century and electronic music was that. I never thought of myself as a classical musician. Well, I did, but one who ignored anything before Ives and Satie.

I decided to be a composer when I was around eight or nine. My school took a field trip to the Norwalk symphony and they played Charles Ives’ Third Symphony. I had never really felt close to music, but when I heard this symphony it didn’t sound like any music I had ever heard; the only thing my young brain could equate it to was weather. I grew up in a house with a lot of windows, with trees all around, and when there was a storm you really felt like you were in the middle of it. That’s what that Ives symphony felt to me, like being in the middle of a storm. I thought “if a human being can create that sort of thing, that’s what I wanna do.” I didn’t want to create music. I wanted to create something on the elemental level of weather.

Then, when I was in high school, Fred Hellerman of The Weavers was over for dinner. In the middle of dinner, I heard this ethereal sound that seemed to be coming from the walls. I looked over and saw Fred with a smile on his face, his finger on the edge of a wine glass. It just blew my mind because I had never seen that done before. The next day I took all my parents’ stemware down to the basement and made my first glass instrument and I’ve been playing glass ever since. When I went to York University in Toronto to study electronic music with David Rosenboom and Richard Teitelbaum, I discovered that there were a bunch of students who were using glass as a sound source for electronic music. After a couple years of that, I thought, “Why don’t we get together and make electronic music without any electricity?” We started this group called the Glass Orchestra in 1977, which was a quartet I was in for ten years.

Miguel Frasconi playing some of his glass instruments.

CADY: How many glass instruments were there? I assume this was not just the Benjamin Franklin glass harmonica.

FRASCONI: I always thought the objective in this group was to create a complete world music culture. There were wind instruments, percussion instruments, a whole range of instruments, but all made of glass. Before Franklin came up with the glass harmonica there was the glass harp, which was basically basically a table with a bunch of stemware on it. So we each had one of those. We would use duck calls in tubes that would create all sorts of wonderful harmonics. You’d play it vertically, blowing the tube up and you’d get all the different harmonics as the duck calls travelled up and down the tube. One of the guys in the group called it the puke-a-phone. So basically, anything made of glass was fair game, and that’s still the way I approach my glass instruments. After forty-some years I have a lot of broken glass instruments which sound amazing: rich and full of harmonics and unexpected sound. I still use glass as a totally exploratory mode.

CADY: Getting to your opera now [*], there seem to be two possible interpretations of the story: number one, that it’s a light and funny story, or number two, that it’s a dark story and it’s more Kafkaesque or like Samuel Beckett. Yet I think you’ve chosen a third interpretation: that it is an experimental process music kind of story. Do you find the other interpretations relevant?

FRASCONI: I found it not quite Kafkaesque but definitely Beckett-esque. This story is about a fellow who thinks there’s a list or there might be a list and he doesn’t know what’s on it. So, I wanted to create a situation where the audience will be put in a position to somehow start making their own lists about what they’re experiencing.  I’ve written a few operas and I thought this is an opportunity to create an opera that has more to do with what I’m personally interested in, which is I like to create music that is not so much presentational as it is experiential.

Marbles. 1955. Leona Pierce.

CADY: The story resonated with me because I often feel like I was not there the day when the list of rules was given out. Do you personally relate to it?

FRASCONI: Oh, absolutely. The first minute is basically just people singing, “There are things I don’t know” over and over again. It felt so cathartic. At this point in my life, I have no idea what will happen.

CADY: I remember you said your piece turned out really weird. Is this opera atypical of your work? Or did it just turn out in an unexpected way?

FRASCONI: I took the same approach with this opera as I do when I play glass instruments. If I’m doing something and I know what it’s going to sound like, it’s not terribly interesting to me. I need to discover something that’s new to me. That’s the approach I took with this opera. There are these first two and a half minutes where it’s pretty static and repetitive and then it quickly switches into a totally different gear. That’s the sort of thing that attracts me to experimental music: you never know what’s gonna happen.

CADY: You perform a little bit in this opera. I’ve been thinking about how being a composer/performer is part of what Experimental Music is because it’s about having a vision that’s so unique that the composer has to be involved in the realization of the music.

FRASCONI: For me it isn’t so much about the composer being the performer but the performer making compositional choices. The composition itself allows for the performers’ predilections to come in, so it makes sense that in experimental music the composer is also a performer. Experimental music keeps the door open for performers to be more active.

[*Things You Should Know, based on a story by A.M. Homes]

Setting The Voices in Jack Handey’s Head

EiO Co-Founder, Jason Cady, is the composer of ‘The Voices In My Head,’ a Flash Opera based on the short story by Jack Handey.  In this post he discusses the interaction that happens when artists combine their style with the ideas within and beyond the work they adapt.

I’m a big fan of Jack Handey. He is a master at crafting one-liners His writing is fun, silly, and timeless. I’ve read his novel, “The Stench of Honolulu,” twice and his book of short stories, “What I’d Say to the Martians,” more times than I can remember. Handey is better known for his work on Saturday Night Live, including such sketches as “Unfrozen Cave Man Lawyer” and “Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey.”

The Voices in My Head
is an adaptation of a Handey story that originally appeared in The New Yorker. It’s a monologue by a guy hearing voices, but—spoiler alert—the voices are just the ordinary thoughts that everyone has with a few unusual thoughts sprinkled in. The character is a lovable idiot. He’s petty, mean, and dumb yet also friendly and full of wonder.

I was on vacation in Fire Island when I thought of the adaptation and music, so I felt a little more relaxed and happier than normal. I imagined the story taking place in a Tiki bar. The story had only one character, but I wanted more so I expanded the scene to four people: three chorus members who personify the “voices” plus the narrator. To keep things interesting, a different singer portrays the narrator every couple of minutes. When not playing the narrator, the singer is part of the chorus. The audience always knows who the narrator is because the singer portraying him dons a Hawaiian shirt, piano-key neck tie, and foam cowboy hat. The members of the chorus wear dual-beer can novelty hats while they dance in a conga line, compete in a limbo contest, and hula-hoop. None of these actions or articles of clothing were in Handey’s story, but they felt true to his style.

Handey’s story evoked mid-century exotica to my mind, stuff like Yma Sumac, Les Baxter, and Esquivel. I didn’t want to go whole hog with Exotica but the more I imagined it I settled on Cuban rhythms, Hawaiian steel guitar, and Honky-Tonk. This felt like a nice combo of New World sounds. I composed the piece in reverse son clave. I wrote some Hawaiian inspired licks which I play on pedal steel and the pianist doubles on ukulele. The Country yodel cadence made popular by Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams—which is the kind of decorated 3-2-1 pattern that Schenkarians love to analyze—inspired much of the melodic material.

There’s also some Funk and Minimalism in the music, but that wasn’t inspired by the story: it’s just what I do, I can’t get away from it. In the final section the pianist tosses ping-pong balls into the piano, not only for its unique sound, but because it’s the kind of experimental wildness that brings to life the anarchic humor of the story.

Questions and Answers

Miguel Frasconi’s adapation of ‘Things You Should Know,’ by AM Homes is one of the featured operas on May’s Flash Operas at Symphony Space.   As he sees it, his piece is in the lineage of experimental music stretching back to some of the very founders of this tradition in the US.  Questions, he says in his blogpost below, are the foundation of all art-making.  We couldn’t agree more!

If there was just one thing I took away from my many visits with John Cage it would be how every creative act can be thought of as nothing more than a series of questions. A painter could ask,”what colors will I use?” A composer could ask, “how does this piece start?” Then there is of course the “meta” question, which made Cage who he was and influenced anyone who came in contact with him: “Once I know what type of questions I’ll be asking, how do I then determine the answers to these questions?” That question beckons the essential experiment in “experimental music.” As an example, what we now call “minimalist” music started out being a wing of the experimental tradition called “process music,” where one could clearly hear the structural evolution that determined the answers to the more detailed compositional questions. It turned structure into a list of audible steps taken to complete the composition. Sometimes these steps involved an interaction with the performer. But still, they were all simply a list of steps to take to get to the final question, “how does this end?”

Excerpt from ‘Things You Should Know.’

I found this idea of how to determine the answer to these questions at the heart of the story, Things You Should Know. A man imagines a list. He knows that he does not in fact know what is on this list, but, still, he knows there is one. This, to me, is the essence of any art worth making. It’s the not knowing that draws me into the creative process. The more I don’t know, the more I can discover things I didn’t expect. This is the process I take when I play my glass instruments, and this is the process I took in composing my personal version of this story as an opera. I didn’t want things to simply be presented to the audience, but wanted to create a situation in which the audience experienced this need to make lists for themselves. Now, I’m not going to reveal how this happens but please come to the performance in May and let me know if I succeeded.

Letting Narrative Take the Lead

EiO Co-founder, Aaron Siegel, has written a new short opera, The Wallet, as part of the upcoming Flash Operas at Symphony Space.  Coming off the recent workshop rehearsals on March 12 and 13, 2017, Aaron reflected on the challenges of adapting a short story for the stage.  Flash Operas are premiering on May 5 and 6, 2017 at Symphony Space.

Part of what has always attracted me to opera is the opportunity to use words to shape music.  All of my theater works to date are based on scripts or text that I have written and often devised specifically with sounds or textures in mind.  This process gives me the ultimate opportunity to create a musical language that speaks unencumbered by text or the intentions of any author other than myself.  I have worked this way for close to 10 years.  Until now.

For my new Flash Opera, I am working from a libretto based on a short story written by another author.  While I ultimately wrote the libretto and was able to shape it based on my musical instincts, I was intent on preserving the shape and, to the extent that I could, the language of the short story.  

The Wallet, by Andrew McCuaig, has been published in a range of collections and anthologies.  It is an unassuming tale, with a moralistic quandary embedded inside a straightforward narrative.  It’s a story that looks to connect with the readers as well as to manipulate them.  My challenges in translating the story to the stage were to preserve the simplicity and also to emphasize the drama.  

I was struck in the process of the obtuseness of theater.  It is very difficult to show subtlety onstage in a way that has meaning.  For example, there is a cup of Coca-Cola in the short story that we first see perspiring on a table.  When Elaine, the protagonist, finds the cup she places it upright in the trash can.  From this subtle detail we are to understand that Troy (who placed the cup on the table originally) is Brutish, boy-like and careless.  Elaine on the other hand is not cruel nor vindictive.  She doesn’t want to make a mess and gently places the cup upright in the trash.  This is the stuff of character and even as it is inconsequential, it gives texture and depth to the story, verisimilitude.  The whole description takes up two sentences and less than 15 seconds to read.

Excerpt from the score to ‘The Wallet’ by Aaron Siegel, based on a story by Andrew McQuaig.

We have no such luxury in opera.  It would take at least a minute to create the same level of detail onstage and even then could hardly be said to be worth it.  Especially in an opera that is intended to last under fifteen minutes to begin with.  As a result, we lose this level of intimacy and verisimilitude. The opera becomes a portrait painted in the broad strokes of archetypes.  Instead of being simply a careless man, Troy instead must be a cad-this character trait being much easier to convey through jaunty music with an insidious undertone.  

This is an example of how my intent to hue as closely to the story as possible lead me to write music that I would not have otherwise written.  The music serves the feeling and mood of the story and characters rather than the other way around.

Then there is the matter of a brief flashback wherein Elaine recalls a previous  encounter with Troy that hints at the theme of abuse that is later brought more fully to the forefront of the story.  Again,  time restrictions prevented me from having a character step out of the action to tell this important story.  Plus, I was intent on telling a straight story that avoided any narrative trickery.  So, I had to adjust the form of the story by starting with the flashback moved adjacent to the main action, still preserving the original timing but reordering the sequence of information.  This, too, had a musical impact, giving the opening of the opera an introductory quality before the main action starts.  Rather than embodying a richer fabric of memory, the flashback material is simpler and speaks without the luxury of any framing material.

Both of these examples of the short story impacting the music and shape of the opera were successful.  They made the piece better than what I could have come up with on my own.  The story, after all, was written by an accomplished writer with a strong sense of how to bring complex ideas alive on the page.  The process has given me a new appreciation for what it means to work with a source text.  The source material becomes a partner in the process, pulling the new work into the verifiable space of existing material while I push it into unknown areas of sound.

Depicting Mandela

Nicole Murphy is an Australia-based composer and one of the featured artists of our forthcoming Flash Operas Program.  Below are a collection of her thoughts about ‘Mandela Was Late,’ her short work based on the story by Peter Mehlman.   Nicole will be in New York next week to attend EiO’s Flash Opera Workshop with the cast and orchestra for the production.

Mandela Was Late is based on a short story of the same title by author Peter Mehlman. The fictional story details the final meeting between Nelson Mandela and his parole officer after Mandela is freed from prison. The writing displays Mehlman’s dry wit, and highlights the tedium and redundancy of bureaucratic processes. My approach to transforming the short story into a libretto was to remain as close to the original text as possible, in order to maintain the integrity and comedic timing of the work. After all, it is unlikely that any attempt to rework the comedic set ups of a writer such as Mehlman (best known for his work as a writer on Seinfeld) would be an improvement. As someone who has a healthy scepticism of ‘red tape’ and bureaucracy, I was drawn to the farcical nature of the situation in Mehlman’s story. The parole officer is merely going through the motions, viewing Mandela as yet another criminal, tarring him with the same brush as every other criminal who passes through his office. He contemplates Mandela’s chance of reoffending, citing recidivism rates for criminals who have spent so long in prison to justify his thinking. And of course, it is absurd that Mandela must be processed in the same system as everyone else – no exceptions, one size fits all.

Score rev. Jan 2017 Mandela Was Late_Page_24

Score excerpt from ‘Mandela Was Late.’

Tedium is woven throughout the encounter. Initially the parole officer waits impatiently for Mandela to arrive. Once he arrives, the parole officer carries out the usual checks and searches. When he questions Mandela, the line of questioning is routine. I wanted to convey the monotony and tedium of the bureaucratic process in the score, which created a compositional challenge: Is it possible to convey a sense of monotony in music while still sustaining interest, creating contrast and generating forward momentum towards climactic moments? Another compositional challenge came in the form of the portrayal of Mandela. Representing a well-known figure is always somewhat of a challenge, and the distinctive nature of Mandela’s spoken voice was always in my ears as I wrote his lines.

When I initially read the text, there were a number of musical ideas that came to me. As I worked on the libretto I scribbled detailed notes of these ideas beside the text, sketched musical gestures on manuscript, and made a series of recordings of improvisations at the piano, while simultaneously commentating my orchestration ideas. The majority of these early ideas can be found in the completed score. During the upcoming workshop, I am most interested in exploiting the collaborative skill set of the creative team, singers and musicians in order to receive feedback to refine the piece. I am particularly interested in assessing the pacing of the opera in real time. Since comedic success is so often reliant on timing, I am curious to hear others’ opinions on the placement and timing of the text within the musical context.

Creating Satire Through Music: Cristina Lord

Cristina Lord is one of the commissioned composers for our upcoming Flash Operas Program at Symphony Space on May 5 and 6.  She has written her Flash Opera based on the story ‘Pledge Drive’ by Patricia Marx.  In advance of our upcoming workshop of her piece, we asked her about what she was thinking about as she worked and what kinds of challenges her story presented to her writing process.  Here are some of her thoughts…

EiO: While you wrote your libretto, were you also imagining the music?  How much did this impact your finished piece?

Cristina: While I didn’t have specific music in mind, I did have a pretty firm idea regarding the emotional contour. I let the text guide me with its sarcasm, self-awareness, and wit. Given this nature, I knew I wanted something humorous with dark undertones, and ridiculous in all the right ways. This led me to write frequent shifts in the music, some more rapid than others, in an array of musical languages that culminate in something unapologetically postmodern.

Pledge Drive SCORE 2a

Score excerpt from Cristina Lord’s ‘Pledge Drive.’

EiO: What challenges did your story present in terms of character and narrative?  How did you resolve these challenges with your music?

Cristina: Pledge Drive by Patricia Marx is more akin to a portrait of a character than a traditional narrative. However, it does pose important questions about society like any good narrative should. The way I see it, there are three characters in the story: Patty, the narrator(s), and the audience. While every story has an intended audience, Pledge Drive is unique in its assertively direct attitude towards the audience.

Surprisingly, Patty isn’t involved in any direct action in the text – she is only referenced (albeit relentlessly). While translating the libretto to opera, I decided it was important to physically represent her. She is unknowingly the star of the show; she is not only the focal point of humor and sarcasm, but is also the lens for questioning societal behavior. Musically, Patty’s part is very present, but never substantive. For example, she has impressive and soaring lines, but none of them involve text that push the narrative. Also, her lines are almost always dependent on the narrator.

In order to avoid the musical and narrative stagnation that can occur with a single voice, I made the decision to have the narrator be represented by two people instead of one. This approach creates a dialogue to engage the audience. It also enables this character to be more chaotic and therefore have greater impact on the audience and Patty. Furthermore, having two narrators creates the semblance of a group, which is a much better representation of society than just one would be. This way, the storyline becomes a societal commentary instead of a single person’s opinion.

EiO: What big questions do you have about how the musicians will respond to the music? 

Cristina: So much of the music relies on the theatrical interpretation, and so I’m hoping that my ideas and intentions will come across clearly. While I undoubtedly want the musicians and audience to have fun with the music, I also hope that it leaves them with questions and self-reflection.